Swimming the Tiber 16: The Sacraments: The Eucharist (Part One)

Tell me the story again
Tell me the story again
A Child in a manger bed
See the Virgin smile, for she understood

Now grow up and break your bread
Pour your cup of wine
On a cross of wood
A cross of wood
A cross of wood

– Chris Rice, “Tell Me the Story Again”

The faithful, incorporated in the Church through baptism, are destined toward the cultivation of the Christian religion by its character and, regenerated into sons of God, they are bound to profess, in the presence of men, the faith that they accepted from God through the Church. By the sacrament of confirmation they are bound more perfectly to the Church; they are enriched with a special strength of the Holy Spirit, and thus they are held more closely to the faith, which ought at the same time to be poured out and defended, as true witnesses of Christ in word and deed. Participating in the Eucharistic sacrifice, the wellspring and summit of the whole Christian life, they offer the divine Victim to God and their very selves along with It.

Lumen Gentium 11 (my translation)

The Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. I am tempted to put qualifiers–“perhaps” it is the greatest mystery, or “maybe” it is–but no, I can say with confidence that the Eucharist is the greatest mystery of the Christian faith. It is with no small amount of trepidation, then, that I undertake this task of explaining such a mystery in the sort of brief terms that my medium allows.

The first step, I think, is to lay out clearly what the Catholic Church really teaches. With most topics, I think, I try to build up to the teaching of the Church, or at least reveal it a step at a time, but there is so much confusion and misinformation about the Eucharist–even among Catholics, who ought to know better–that I think it important to state it up front.

The Eucharist, that is, the unleavened bread and wine offered at every Catholic Mass, is physically, really, actually, for all intents and purposes, the literal Body and Blood, Soul and Divinity of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Christ’s presence in the species of bread and wine is called the Real Presence, not because his presence through prayer or Scripture isn’t real, but because, in the Eucharist, he is substantially present.

Here, species means something like vehicle. The bread and wine do not disappear, and indeed, the Eucharist still tastes like bread and wine, but they truly become Christ’s own Body and Blood. Every piece of the host (another term for the species) is the wholeness of Christ’s Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity, which is why Catholics are so cautious about the whole deal. If you drop a crumb, you must pick it up immediately and, if it is clean, consume it; if it gets too dirty to eat, you must dissolve it with water and pour it directly into the earth; if it is taken by some nefarious person and sold or given to Satanists for their “black mass,” the profanation of our Savior’s Body is deplorable.

And when I say substantially present, I really mean present in substance. The Eucharist does not represent or symbolize the Body of Christ; it is the Body of Christ.

Okay, by now, I’m sure you’re flipping out. If you haven’t just closed the site in frustration, I appreciate your patience. Because while I’ve defined the Eucharist, I haven’t explained it. I haven’t justified a word of it yet. So let’s dig in a little bit and take a look at why the Catholic Church believes this.

The Simple Explanation

The so-called “simple explanation” is that the Eucharist is Christ’s Body and Blood because he said it is. It seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? Just read Matthew 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; Luke 22:14-23; and 1 Corinthians 11:23-26. These are the moments of institution for this sacrament, when Christ laid out for us how to receive it, and he says quite plainly, “This is my body,” and, “This is my blood.” He does not say that it symbolizes his Body, or represents his Blood, but he says that it is.

Too simple for you? Easily refuted, you say? Fair enough. Let’s step up our game.

The Johannine Explanation

The Gospel of John doesn’t actually include the institution of the Eucharist. Surely this must be some mistake, right? The “wellspring and summit of the whole Christian life” isn’t represented in one of the Gospels? Probably not that important, then, huh?

Well, John does include talk of the Eucharist–more, in fact, than the synoptic Gospels do. But he doesn’t include it via the Lord’s Supper, but rather through Christ’s teaching. Read John 6:25-65. Here we see Christ declare, in very clear terms, that eating his Body is necessary for salvation. Without it, he says, “you have no life in you” (NRSV). This is some of the strongest Eucharistic language in all of Scripture. “But-but-but!” you say, “What about John 6:63? It clearly says the flesh is useless, so he must mean something else.”

Well, I struggled with this for a little while, because it wasn’t quite clear, but as usual, St. Augustine provides us with an easy (if loquacious) answer.

What is it, then, that He adds? “It is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing.” Let us say to Him (for He permits us, not contradicting Him, but desiring to know), O Lord, good Master, in what way does the flesh profit nothing, while You have said, “Except a man eat my flesh, and drink my blood, he shall not have life in him”? Or does life profit nothing? And why are we what we are, but that we may have eternal life, which Thou dost promise by Your flesh? Then what means “the flesh profits nothing”? It profits nothing, but only in the manner in which they understood it. They indeed understood the flesh, just as when cut to pieces in a carcass, or sold in the shambles; not as when it is quickened by the Spirit. Wherefore it is said that “the flesh profits nothing,” in the same manner as it is said that “knowledge puffs up.” Then, ought we at once to hate knowledge? Far from it! And what means “Knowledge puffs up”? Knowledge alone, without charity. Therefore he added, “but charity edifies” (1 Corinthians 8:1). Therefore add to knowledge charity, and knowledge will be profitable, not by itself, but through charity. So also here, “the flesh profits nothing,” only when alone. Let the Spirit be added to the flesh, as charity is added to knowledge, and it profits very much. For if the flesh profited nothing, the Word would not be made flesh to dwell among us. If through the flesh Christ has greatly profited us, does the flesh profit nothing? But it is by the flesh that the Spirit has done somewhat for our salvation. Flesh was a vessel; consider what it held, not what it was. The apostles were sent forth; did their flesh profit us nothing? If the apostles’ flesh profited us, could it be that the Lord’s flesh should have profited us nothing? For how should the sound of the Word come to us except by the voice of the flesh? Whence should writing come to us? All these are operations of the flesh, but only when the spirit moves it, as if it were its organ. Therefore “it is the Spirit that quickens; the flesh profits nothing,” as they understood the flesh, but not so do I give my flesh to be eaten.

– St. Augustine, Tractate 27 paragraph 5 (trans. John Gibb)

But perhaps you are unconvinced. Let’s carry on.

The Pauline Explanation

St. Paul reminds us that, just as there is only one Body of Christ, there is also only one bread, though we break it and share it and eat it. Read 1 Corinthians 10:14-22; 11:27-32. Combined with the institution narrative we saw earlier, this clearly indicates the sameness of the Body of Christ and the bread of the supper we share. See also Romans 12:4-5; Ephesians 1:22-23; 4:4-6.

If you’re still unconvinced, let me run through one final explanation in the hopes that overwhelming evidence will sway you.

The Typological Explanation

We Catholics looooove typology. It comes from being intellectually descended of the school of Alexandria rather than exclusively that of Antioch. Being able to look at Scripture, especially the Old Testament, and find precursors of the New Testament–it’s a good feeling. God gave us these hints all along the way, and we couldn’t see them for what they were until he revealed the full truth later. So it is that we talk about Israel as a type of the Church, the parting of the Red Sea as a type of baptism, and Adam as a type of Christ.

Some important things to remember about types: (1) They’re always inferior to the thing they foreshadow. Adam fell, but Christ rose. The escaping Israelites almost immediately constructed a golden calf to return to their dead ways, but baptism grants an indelible mark of grace. Israel strayed time and again, but the Church clings to the teachings handed down to us by Christ and his Apostles. (2) They’re typically both literal and allegorical, meaning they had a real, historical existence that made sense in context, but they also prefigure a deeper reality. This also means that you can’t extend the metaphor too far; the type is only an incomplete representation.

So let’s sprint through a few types of the Eucharist, shall we?

Our first stop is the garden of Eden, where eating is extremely important. Obviously, the fruit of the tree of life is a precursor of Christ, whose Body hung on a tree, from which we eat his flesh and gain eternal life. But there is also the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil; it’s a kind of reverse type, which we will see again in this series later. For by the consumption of one food (of death) we were condemned and died, so by the consumption of another (one of life) we are granted eternal life.

Next, we join Abram for his blessing by the priest-king Melchizedek (Genesis 14). Here, we see that Melchizedek brought out “bread and wine” (verse 18), and of course we know (from Psalm 110:4 and Hebrews 5-7) that Jesus is a priest in the order of Melchizedek, but we know that he offered not bread and wine, but his own Body and Blood.

Then of course there is the Passover (Exodus 12). The parallels here are drawn when Christ uses this backdrop to institute the Eucharist. But not just the bread and wine are precursors here; so also the sacrificial lamb, which they killed and ate. And they spread its blood on the doorposts. (If you don’t see Christ crucified every time someone talks about blood on an upright wooden structure, you’ve been missing out.)

Quick, to the wilderness with the Israelites (Exodus 16)! Jesus himself draws this comparison in John 6, which I hope you’ve already read; Jesus is the bread from heaven, the true bread, which satisfies forever. Manna came from God, but only satisfied for a time; Jesus’ one sacrifice on the cross fills us for all eternity. Note also that a jar of this manna was placed in the ark of the covenant (Exodus 16:33-34; Hebrews 9:4), which was so called because it contained the covenant of God (Exodus 25:16) and it was there that God’s presence came forth to speak to the Israelites (Exodus 25:22). There’s also the Bread of the Presence (Exodus 25:30; Leviticus 24:7). And what contains or holds these breads (you might call it the vehicle) should not be touched by any unworthy person (2 Samuel 6:7-8; see again 1 Corinthians 11:27-32).

Let’s jump ahead to Elijah, who was fed bread by ravens (1 Kings 17) and cake by an angel (1 Kings 19). This latter kept him nourished for forty days, just as Christ fasted forty days in his own wilderness.

Then to Elisha, who fed a hundred men with twenty loaves of barley in 2 Kings 4. This reminds us instantly of Christ’s feeding of the multitudes, which were similar miracles, but all the more vast (five and seven loaves instead of twenty, thousands instead of a hundred), and were themselves a type of the Eucharist (a small body of bread, broken and shared among many).

Skip to the Prophets. Ezekiel ate a scroll (Ezekiel 3). That’s kinda weird, huh? At least until you think about how Jesus is the Word made flesh (John 1:14), and we consume his Body for our salvation.

But enough Old Testament. Let’s look at some New Testament types!

Paul tells us (1 Corinthians 15:20) that Jesus was the first fruits of those who died. On the one hand, we know that this means more will follow, but it also means we sacrifice him and eat his Body (Exodus 23:19; 34:26; Leviticus 2:14; 23; Deuteronomy 18:3-4; 26; Nehemiah 10:35; Judith 11:13; etc.).

I’ve already mentioned the miracles of feeding the multitudes, but they’re worth another shout-out (Matthew 14:15-21; 15:32-38; Mark 6:35-44; 8:1-8; Luke 9:12-17; John 6:1-14).

And there are more, but this post grows long, and there’s just one more that I want to mention. In all God’s wisdom and authority, when he became man and dwelt among us, in his very first moments out in the light, breathing air alongside us, he could have been laid anywhere–but he was laid in a manger.1

Next week, I want to keep looking at the Eucharist–now that I have established, in some small way, what the Eucharist is, I still need to look at what it does in the Christian life. It will likely be a much shorter post than this one, but it covers some important topics that still need to be addressed.

1 The English word manger derives from French mangier (“to eat”), originally from Latin mandere (“to chew”). In English, it technically means the place where food for animals is placed (like a trough).

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